A Dialogue Concerning Limited Atonement
by Bob Thune
Often the best way for me to think something through carefully and concretely is to have a conversation with myself. I would like your permission, dear reader, to do exactly that in this essay. Let us have a dialogue. It will not be a true dialogue, of course, for you are not sitting here as I write. But perhaps an informal sort of "mental conversation" will be useful to us in thinking through one of the most important matters in Christian theology.
I will assume that you are a "general Arminian" Christian; in other words, a basic American evangelical. It is likely that you believe in the primacy of human free will. Though you wouldnít necessarily claim to have studied this matter exhaustively, it seems to fit with what youíve been taught by various pastors or teachers or authors. And certainly it meshes well with your reason and with various Bible passages youíre familiar with. (Forgive me if these assumptions are slightly wrong in your case, but we must start somewhere!)
As this sort of general Arminian, you probably have some reservations against the theology known as Calvinism. Perhaps you (like me) have had some bad experiences with arrogant, narrow-minded Calvinists. Or perhaps the idea of Godís ultimate sovereignty just rubs you the wrong way. Either way, youíve got your defenses up against this particular strain of Protestant theology. And if Iím right so far, then perhaps you have opened the door just a crack and sought to find out what Calvinism is. Youíve heard that there are "five points" of Calvinism, and that they form the acrostic "TULIP." And thereís one point that probably bothers you more than all the others: "Limited Atonement," which says that Jesus did NOT die for everyone in the world, but only for the elect. This idea canít possibly be biblical, can it? The most treasured verse in the Bible, John 3:16, says that "God so loved the worldÖ" Perhaps this idea of "limited atonement" leads you to believe that Calvinism is suspect, that itís unloving and unbiblical, and that itís the result of people caring more about logic than about Scripture.
Iíve been where you are, my friend. And Iím not going to let you stay there. For indeed, though this doctrine can seem difficult at first glance, it is in fact the only perspective on atonement that accurately represents the biblical truth. I intend to prove that assertion in the paragraphs to follow. Bring your questions and come with me, and letís see how far we can get. (Beware that weíre treading in deep theological water here. This is not bedtime reading; these issues require some sustained reflection. Read slowly, even as I have written slowly.)
Because I donít know your background, I must make some broad assumptions. So letís start with a pretty standard point of agreement: the pervasiveness of sin. All evangelical Christians hold to the biblical truth that human beings are sinful. After all, thatís the starting point of the gospel. Humans have a problem, and the problem is sin. Sin corrupts our faculties and impairs our judgment.
And letís go a step further: the pervasiveness of sin means that itís not possible for a fallen human being to just wake up one day and "decide" to become a Christian. (Even my friends who are most committed to human free will agree with this statement). God has to be involved in the process somewhere. Otherwise, why would we pray for people to be saved? Our prayers prove that we donít believe sinners can just turn to Christ in their own power. We ask God to open the sinnerís eyes, or help him to faith, or something of the sort, thereby affirming that God is involved. On these issues there is broad agreement, whether you consider yourself a Calvinist or an Arminian or anywhere in between.
Of course, the reason we agree on these things is not just because of our personal experience, but because the testimony of Scripture is absolutely clear. The Bible speaks of nonbelievers as "dead in sin" (Eph. 2:1), "slaves to sin" (Rom 6:6), unable to seek God (Rom 3:11), "without hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12), "by nature children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3). But salvation is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). If these descriptions of us are true, we need some help getting to the point of faith.
In other words, faith must somehow be bestowed upon us. God must do something in us to bring us to the point of salvation. But we know that not everyone comes to faith. So, my general Arminian friend, you are confronted with a problem. If Christ died for everyone (as anyone opposed to limited atonement would claim), and if he wants everyone to be saved, why does He not bring everyone to faith? If Christís death was truly for all, why doesnít God give faith equally to all?
Before we go further, letís make sure we understand the question. Focus with me on the dilemma weíve just raised. You believe that Christ died for all human beings Ė that His death is equally valid for all. And yet God has not given faith equally to all human beings. The result of this convoluted theology is a God at cross-purposes with Himself! God sent His Son to really and truly purchase salvation for all men, and yet He has not worked within every human to actually bring them to the point of salvation. John Owen puts it colorfully: "Doth it beseem the wisdom of God, to purpose that which He knows shall never be fulfilled? If a man should promise to give a thousand pounds to a blind man upon condition that he will open his eyes and seeÖ [is that not the same as] obtaining of salvation for men upon condition that they do believe, without obtaining that condition for them?" (The Death of Death, p. 130). We are left either with a mad God who taunts humans with a salvation they can never obtain, or with an impotent God who is strong enough to conquer all the forces of hell and secure eternal salvation for every human, but too weak to actually apply it to them.
There are only two ways for you to solve the present dilemma. On the one hand, you could say that God gives faith to all, but some turn away and do not receive it. In other words, Godís grace is resistible. God offers the grace of faith in the same way to everyone, but humans can and do deny the gift. There are two colossal problems with this position. The first is that it makes salvation ultimately a human work, not a divine one. The reason Iím saved and the guy next door isnít has nothing to do with the grace of God. We both had "equal opportunity;" itís just that I was smart enough to accept Christís gift, and my neighbor wasnít. This view of salvation flies in the face of verses like Ephesians 2:4-6, which give credit for our salvation exclusively to God: "But God, being rich in mercyÖ even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ." The second problem is that this view trivializes the atonement and utterly confuses the meaning of redemption. It leaves us with a Savior who bled and died on the cross to forgive the sins of people who will never actually receive that forgiveness. It says that Christ turned away the wrath of God for people who will still experience that wrath.
The other possible solution to the dilemma is to say that Christís death only made salvation possible. It only potentially turned away the wrath of God. Forgiveness was hypothetically provided; but that forgiveness is only actualized when we place faith in Christ. So Jesusí death made salvation possible for all; but redemption is only applied to those who respond in faith. If you look closely, you will realize that this is simply "limited atonement" with a different set of criteria. Instead of limiting the extent of the atonement, this view limits the power of the atonement. And it falls prey to the same weaknesses described above. We are left with a Savior who doesnít really save and an atonement that doesnít really atone. According to this perspective, Christís death actually does nothing; my faith is the key which unleashes the benefits of atonement in my life. So it is meaningless to say with Paul that we are "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith" (Rom 3:24-25). On the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that we are justified by our faith through the possible redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
You see, everyone limits the atonement in some way. Indeed we must do so, for it is the only way that hell can exist. Either Christís atonement is limited in power (therefore it only makes salvation possible) or it is limited in extent (therefore it only applies to the elect people of God). The Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement affirms the second of these options, because indeed it is the biblical one. The Bible speaks of God bestowing salvation upon His chosen people: "Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His SonÖ and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified" (Rom 8:29-30). The Bible also speaks of God as the one who chooses not to bestow salvation to some: "He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires" (Rom 9:18).
Limited atonement is a powerful and worshipful doctrine, for it exalts the true significance of Christís death and resurrection. Not a drop of Christís precious blood was spilled in vain. Jesus did not just make salvation possible; he absolutely secured it for all who will turn to him in faith. This is the only adequate basis for the assurance of salvation. My assurance rests not in the strength of my faith, but in the fact that my Savior has secured redemption fully and finally on my behalf. Only when I espouse this doctrine can I truly claim with Colossians 1:22 that "He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through deathÖ" My Savior has not merely made reconciliation possible; He has truly, fully, and finally reconciled me to God through His death. Here is an atonement that really atones! God has no more wrath toward me, because he poured it all out on His Son.
As we ponder these deep truths, a more practical objection may be running through your mind: if limited atonement is true, how does it affect evangelism? When we declare the gospel, are we not telling people that Christ died for them? How can we honestly say that, if Christ may not have actually died for them?
This is an important question. To state it more broadly: does a biblical view of limited atonement diminish the free offer of the gospel? The answer is: not at all! In fact, some of the most vigorous evangelists in the history of Christianity have been committed to limited atonement. John Calvin led a movement that planted churches all over France; Jonathan Edwards moved from a successful urban church to the wild frontier to reach American Indians with the gospel; Charles Spurgeonís booming voice preached some of the most memorable evangelistic sermons in the English language. Because we do not know who the elect are, we can freely and fully offer the gospel to everyone. After all, Jesus promises that "the one who comes to me, I will certainly not cast out" (John 6:37). However, some careful thinking about atonement Ė and some careful reading of Scripture Ė might bring some much-needed reform to our evangelism. Nowhere in Scripture do we read of an evangelistic appeal that claims, "Jesus died for you." Rather, we read of Peter saying, "The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself" (Acts 2:39). We read of Paul preaching in Antioch, "Through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all thingsÖ" (Acts 13:38-39). Notice that he didnít say, "Your sins are forgiven." Instead, he said, "Forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to youÖ everyone who believes is freed." Even John 3:16 shows a careful balance: God loved the world, but He gave His son so that "whoever believes in Him shall not perish."
If we would learn from our Bibles instead of from cultural Christianity, we would seek (as Paul did) to become "all things to all men, so that by all means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). And our message would be, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31). But we would stop short of portraying the unbiblical notion that "Christ died for you." We would more accurately proclaim that Christ died for sinners; and that all who come to Him in repentance will be forgiven and reconciled to God. Anything else is unbiblical and frighteningly incorrect.
What we think about the atonement matters. And so, my general Arminian reader, I humbly hope this essay has erased your opposition to limited atonement. I challenge you to wrestle with this doctrine. I urge you to search the pages of sacred Scripture to confirm its truthfulness. And I commend to you some of my own tour guides: R.C. Sproulís book "Chosen by God" for a basic treatment of the subject, or John Owenís 17th-century classic "The Death of Death in the Death of Christ" for a richer and more complex argument. Above all, I beg you not to put this doctrine on the shelf and assume that itís not important or that itís "too theological" in nature. On the contrary, it is essential to assurance of salvation, to evangelism, and to our worship of Christ. A Savior who possibly saved me is not worthy of much affection; but a Savior who fully bore the wrath of God in my place is worthy of deepest delight, admiration, and worship. May Jesus be greater in your life as you realize the true nature of His atonement!